He was my best friend's dad, a dairy farmer. I, meanwhile, was in high school, thinking about moving upward and outward. He seemed at the time to be a minor character in my life's story. He and I talked occasionally, but only perfunctorily. We went to the same church and knew the same people. I stayed overnight at his house once in a while when Jeff invited me for a sleepover. And I helped out at the farm during hay season. But when I graduated and moved away, neither Elwood nor I much expected to cross paths again.
As I got older I did occasionally think about him. When I would see Jeff I would ask about his parents. And the thing that kept coming back to my mind was that Elwood was a little eccentric. Of course, I am attracted to all sorts of eccentricity! He was obliviously old fashioned. His family went years before he would let them get a TV. He drove a 62 Chrysler Newport, the with the odd push button transmission. The man always wore a suit and tie to church, and made sure that he never missed a Sunday. He seemed to never sleep: when I would stay over with Jeff, Elwood would be up later than us and he would be up early enough the next morning to milk the cows.
The family tells me that he caught up on his sleep during the day, being well known in the family for his spontaneous naps.
He was a unique type of conservative: a man who believed in progress without change. Things that mattered to him were education, music, justice, compassion, peace, and happiness. And he thought a lot about how to make all that happen
without outward change. Only later would I see the wisdom in that approach to life.
Elwood always struck me as uncannily calm. I watched him tube a bloated cow one day, acting quickly to try and save her life. I didn't think I could ever stay that calm in a crisis. Another time, Jeff and I were stacking hay bales up in the barn, and we got to goofing around, and Jeff fell backward out the door, about 10 feet onto the concrete, cracking his head. I thought it killed him at first. Then he got up woozy and drooling, and I thought he'd never be "right" again. But Elwood knew just what to do and ministered to his son appropriately, keeping his wits the whole time. It surprised me that he didn't banish us from being together after that.
About ten years ago Jeff started sending his dad these Sunday letters I write. And Elwood would
study them. Partly he couldn't believe
who was doing the writing. The writer of my essays didn't seem like the kid he once knew: that kid who was kind of "full of himself." Elwood kept trying to connect the dots between who I was in the past and who I am now. (It's easier hide our flaws in writing than it is in person!) Partly Elwood critiqued the literary techniques I employ in my writing. Partly he'd relate to the descriptive details I would include in the essays. And partly he kept trying to figure out when I got any work done, since my writings were always regaling the reader with the trips and adventures of my life.
In time he got Jeff to give him my phone number so he could call me up from time to time ...to talk about my writing. Our conversations were warm and funny and smart. I'd never experienced him so alive. And he'd never experienced me as someone of a like-spirit.
And then a few years ago, when he heard I was going to Wisconsin and would pass near their farmhouse, he invited me to stop by for dinner. I eagerly accepted. It felt like a pilgrimage, a curiosity to meet for the first time a man I'd sort of long known.
When I arrived he quickly asked me if I would look at some of the things
he'd written. I didn't know he was a writer. So dinner waited and we browsed through a sheaf of papers, some of them 60 years old. Elwood had served in the Army Signal Corps at the end of World War II. His essays playfully retold his sea sickness on the boat over there, soberly depicted the awful destruction of a Belgian village at war's end, and picturesquely included the reader in his experience at the Eiffel Tower on VE Day. Another essay graphically described a car accident that severely injured him and killed his grandfather. I indeed felt that I was meeting the man for the first time.
A "city boy" from Madison, Wisconsin, Elwood drifted into rural northwestern Illinois due to the lure of Eleanor. After they got married he worked briefly at a country store. Eleanor only married him because he was taking finance classes in college and she was desperate to escape the farm. But then her father offered Elwood a stake in the family diary farm, and Eleanor was stuck on the farm for good. Good thing she sort of like him.
He stayed at dairy farming for 30 years until the farm economy of the early 80s squeezed him out. In no time he got a job in a factory in Dixon where he worked another 28 years. When Plex-O-Glass mandated retirement for him, he wandered over to the local Culvers eatery and asked if he could work there: anything but cook he declared. So they hired him and he was still working there part time even after he was 90.
When I was a kid I watched Elwood practice his religion. It seemed pretty routine to me and a little boring. He was Sunday School Superintendent for over 20 years at the East Jordan Church. The routine was similar each Sunday: opening Sunday School exercises, comments about the week's Bible lesson, a few platitudes of advice for the children, a careful recitation of each class's attendance, leading in the prescribed number of hymns from the Sunday School songbook...etc. etc.
His private religious life seemed just as routine: Upper Room daily devotional; Guideposts daily devotional; prayer each day for his family, church, and world; prayer before meals; no farm work ever on a Sunday (except milking the cows and tending sick animals); and never taking the Lord's name in vain.
I saw his public and personal religious habits. What I did
not see, until I was showed his private papers, was his faith. Only when reading what he had
authored was I able to detect his deep gratitude for nature and creation. He expressed that gratitude in lofty, poetic words. His humility and desire for God's forgiveness, as he penned it on paper, left me silent. His love of music, especially big band, jazz, classical, and hymns, made me grin. His slightly awkward tributes to his wife and children and grandchildren revealed the wordless delight he felt in them. His comments about war and its unspeakable memories exposed him as a peace advocate, something I never imagined when I knew him as a kid.
And as I read his writings, I realized that I had known the man ...all along. I had once thought him a minor character in my life's story. But he was major. He had unwittingly helped shape me from the time we first met, not so much with many words, but with quiet character and example.
My love of nature, and the Bible, and peace, and the church, and hard work, and calmness, and respect for others, and my love for words in all their power and playfulness...all had been significantly exemplified and nurtured by him! Again, the influence was not direct nor by words, but by years of living around him and absorbing the comments he made...when I thought I wasn't listening.
Elwood died this past June. And so today, as we remember the various saints of our lives, I light my candle and say my prayer for him. Thanks be to God for his life, and for the ways that he continues to go from strength to strength in God's heavenly kingdom. It may be that Elwood's grace and wisdom and goodness are more powerfully present now than ever...in his children, his grandchildren, and in the kids who never gave him all that much thought when he was influencing us those many decades ago. --Mike